Football Features

How a Xabi Alonso-inspired Real Sociedad side came so close to becoming shock La Liga champions in 2002/03

By Oliver Young-Myles

Published: 12:29, 10 June 2020

Atletico Madrid were the exception to the rule in 2014 but, usually, the La Liga title is either won by Real Madrid or Barcelona.

Of the last 15 La Liga titles, Spain’s ‘big two’ have hoovered up 14 between them – Barcelona have won it ten times, Real on the other four occasions – and it is highly likely one of them will win it again in 2019/20 too.

The current two-horse race in La Liga is a far cry from the open title chases that routinely took place at the start of the millennium. Between 2000 and 2004, there were three different title winners and, quite amazingly, Barcelona was not one of them. In 2000, Deportivo La Coruna lifted their first and so far only La Liga title, while Real Madrid and Valencia traded the next four, winning two apiece.

Looking back, there could well have been four different title winners during that five-year period. A Real Madrid side packed full of Galacticos from Zinedine Zidane to Luis Figo to the latest recruit in the project Ronaldo, wrestled the title off Valencia at the end of 2002/03 but only won it by two points. Their nearest competitors were not Barcelona, nor Valencia or Deportivo, but Real Sociedad, a team that had finished closer to the relegation zone than first the previous season.

Much like their current crop consisting of Martin Ødegaard, Mikel Oyarzabal, Alexander Isak and Nacho Monreal, Sociedad’s side in 2002/03 had a healthy blend of youth and experience, foreign stars and Basque players, attacking potency and defensive deficiency. Leading their unlikely charge to glory was the free-scoring, little-and-large strikeforce of Nihat Kahveci and Darko Kovačević, who between them plundered 43 goals – just two fewer than fourth-placed Celta Vigo managed as an entire team.

Nihat Kahveci

Supplementing them on the flanks were La Liga cult hero and ageing Russian playmaker Valery Karpin and Spain international winger (and latterly Blackburn Rovers flop) Javier de Pedro with a fresh-faced Xabi Alonso pulling the strings in midfield alongside Mikel Aranburu – a one-club man who retired in 2012. Real Madrid, spearheaded by three Ballon d’Or winners – Ronaldo, Zidane and Figo – alongside Raul, were the only team to outscore Sociedad that season, demonstrating their attacking potency.

Like many teams to have launched shock title challenges, Sociedad were a delight to watch, but ultimately their flaws prevented them from taking that final step and overcoming a behemoth like Real Madrid. Although capable of outscoring most teams (as they did against Real Madrid towards the end of that campaign when winning 4-2 at Anoeta), Sociedad’s vulnerabilities at the back eventually came back to haunt them. Other than Agustín Aranzábal, a veteran of 28 caps for the Spanish national team, Sociedad’s quality at the back perhaps didn’t match up with that at the top end of the pitch.

Between the sticks was Sander Westerveld, a starter for Liverpool during their treble-winning season in 2000/01 but someone who had lost his way at Anfield to such an extent that Gerard Houllier signed both Jerzy Dudek and Chris Kirkland to replace him. Another player with an association with Liverpool was the versatile Norwegian Bjørn Tore Kvarme whose spell in England was forgettable. Argentine Gabriel Schürrer, a La Liga champion with Deportivo, club legend Aitor López Rekarte and Igor Jauregi, made up the rest of the Sociedad’s regular defensive options.

In charge of the operation was a Frenchman, Raynald Denoueix, a man who managed just two clubs in less than a decade but who enjoyed considerable success at both. Before moving to the Basque country ahead of the 2002/03 season, Denoueix had spent the entirety of his 32 years in football at FC Nantes in his native France, as a player, head of youth development and manager. During his time as part of the youth setup at Nantes, Denoueix oversaw the progress of the likes of Didier Deschamps, Marcel Desailly and Claude Makelele. In four years as manager, meanwhile, Denoueix won the Coupe De France back-to-back as well as Ligue 1 in 2000/01 – the eighth and last time the club won the French top-flight.

That Sociedad were able to secure the services of a coach with Denoueix’s track record despite being a middling La Liga club at the time is something of a surprise in hindsight; perhaps in a modern era where there is a greater emphasis on flooding first-team squads with young players, a man of his expertise would be more in demand. Sociedad certainly benefited from his coaching methods, though, starting the 2002/03 season with a thrilling 4-2 victory over Basque rivals Athletic Club with Karpin, Kovačević and Nihat (2) grabbing the goals.

It wasn’t until the return fixture at San Mames in the New Year that Sociedad finally suffered their first league defeat of the campaign – a 3-0 loss – at the 20th game of asking, by which time they had already held Real Madrid to a 0-0 draw at the Bernabeu and beaten Barcelona 2-1 at Anoeta, sitting top of the table. That defeat to Athletic sparked a mini run of form which would ultimately prove costly. Over their next four fixtures, Sociedad took only four points, losing 3-2 to Real Betis, 3-0 to Real Valladolid and drawing 0-0 with Espanyol, the latter two clubs finishing 14th and 17th that year.

The wobble proved to be only a momentary setback. After rediscovering their form, Sociedad hosted Real Madrid in early April and blew Vicente Del Bosque’s side to pieces. With only 33 minutes on the clock, Sociedad found themselves 4-1 in front. Kovačević opened the scoring within two minutes, benefiting from fine work by Aranzabal inside the penalty area, before doubling his and Sociedad’s lead 18 minutes later with a sweeping finish from a De Pedro cross.

Then a breathless 180 seconds ensued. With 31 minutes on the clock, Nihat got in on the act, breezing between Ivan Helguera and Fernando Hierro before bubbling a finish beyond Iker Casillas. Celebrations were tempered when Real pulled one back straight from kick-off with a goal oozing in Galactico class when Ronaldo expertly squeezed a shot in from an acute angle following a perfectly weighted through ball from Zidane. Then came a moment of brilliance from future Real star Alonso as he bent a phenomenal shot from distance beyond Casillas, at the time arguably the best goalkeeper in the world.

Javier Portillo, a wonderkid who didn’t live up to his early promise, netted a late consolation but Sociedad had laid down a marker. They then won five of their next six games, starting with a 5-0 thrashing of Rayo Vallecano and finishing with a 2-0 win over Malaga to propel themselves to the brink of the title with three games remaining. Standing in the way of their place in the history books were Valencia and Celta Vigo, both in a battle to secure Champions League football, before a final game against mid-table Atletico Madrid.

Celta had a fantastic season finishing fourth but while they ended up well below the top two, they played a key role in the title race. Sociedad’s 1-1 draw with Valencia meant they were unable to capitalise on Real being held by the same scoreline as Celta at the Bernabeu, but the visitors were unfortunate to not take all three points. Had they done so, the pressure on Sociedad would have been reduced as they travelled to Balaidos for the penultimate game of the campaign. As it was, they were unable to secure the win they required, losing 3-2 to Celta but trailing by two goals for much of the game. Real Madrid, meanwhile, thrashed Atletico 4-0 to move two points clear.

On the final day of the season, Sociedad required a win against Atletico to stand any chance of winning the title while also hoping that their rivals Athletic would do them a favour at the Bernabeu. Sociedad held up their end of the bargain, winning 3-0 with Kovačević, De Pedro and Nihat scoring the goals. Sadly for them, it wasn’t enough, as Real also won their match against Athletic 3-1 with Ronaldo helping himself to a double and Roberto Carlos adding the other.

A season which had started with such promise ended in devastation. Alonso and Nihat were crowned Spanish and foreign player of the year in La Liga respectively, with Denoueix swooping up the Don Balon award given to the best coach. Individual accolades were a scant consolation, however, for what would have been an incredible collective achievement had they pipped Real to the title. Although Sociedad kept their squad together that summer, there was – perhaps inevitably – a massive drop-off in 2003/04, as they finished 15th and 30 points worse off than the year before.

Denoueix was sacked and never managed again, while Alonso, Aranzabal, De Pedro, Kvarme, Schürrer and Westerveld all moved on either before or during the 2004/05 season, representing the end of a golden, albeit brief, period in the club’s modern history. Sociedad are once again one of La Liga’s great entertainers, but the gap between them and the elite remains a wide one. It is difficult to envisage them or any other La Liga sides toppling Real or Barca anytime soon.